“Nothing I saw at Magadan… suggested slave labor.”

Henry Wallace was a man of great talent and achievement. As a politician, however, he was susceptible to selective blindness or conscience-soothing self-delusion. In May 1944, he visited the camps of the Kolyma basin – the vast, permafrost-covered northeasternmost island of the Gulag Arkhipelago. The title of Robert Conquest’s 1978 book, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, is not a rhetorical exaggeration. However, Wallace failed to detect anything amiss at the time of his journey.

In 1946, Wallace and Owen Lattimore wrote that the Kolyma camps were “a combination TVA and Hudson’s Bay Company.” The book attested one experienced torturer as “a very fine man, very efficient, gentle, and understanding with people.” Wallace also wrote of the concentration camp commander: “We want for a walk in the taiga… The larch were just putting out their first leaves, and Nikishov gamboled about, enjoying the wonderful air immensely…” And the workers? “The Kolyma gold miners are big, husky young men, who came out to the Far East from European Russia.” Wallace and Lattimore surely met a group of big, husky young men, only they weren’t gold miners, merely playing the part.

Vadim Birstein’s article has many more details of the infamous trip and the characters involved. Wallace, unlike Lattimore, owned up to his error in 1952, when Elinor Lipper, a former Kolyma prisoner, published an account of her 11 years in Soviet prisons and camps. Wallace’s retraction can be found at Brad DeLong’s. Some of the comments are loopy beyond belief and repair.

Going back to 1944, there is are good reasons to question Wallace’s critical thinking capabilities at the time, including the wisdom of his March 1944 article on Fascism. But Wallace was a successful plant breeder and an astute businessman. Did he give a brief thought to the extreme weather conditions in Northeastern Siberia and the possible reasons why no settlements larger than trading posts or small villages had ever existed there, despite the fact that Russian colonization started in the 18th century? Did he really think that Magadan’s climate was about the same as Juneau?


  1. I got friends with a guy from Magadan while I was in Sakhalin. He was called George and he might have been Jewish. He learned English somehow and made his way to Sakhalin in the 1990s to try to find work as a translator for the foreign companies that were sniffing around. Somebody told him that forestry (ha!) was the future of Sakhalin so he bought a tract up north of Nogliki somewhere. As luck would have it, this tract was right where Sakhalin Energy wanted to build their access road to their onshore processing facility. They offered to buy it, or buy access, and George – who was only in his early thirties – made a deal whereby he would build the road for them. Unlike most other contractors on the island at the time, George actually did it: sure he may have creamed off a few thousand dollars here and there, but he delivered on what he promised and treated his clients with respect. This earned him more work and he ended up winning all the road and bridge upgrade works that Sakhalin Energy had to offer, making him a very rich man. But he always delivered, and never took the piss: that was what made George different. As such, the clients liked him. Somehow he was his own roof: he had a reputation from somewhere that made nobody mess with him. He once intervened in a nightclub brawl a friend of mine was caught up in, and the bouncers stood to attention. I did him a favour once and we briefly became friends, getting smashed in a bar once or twice. He invited me to Magadan but alas I never went, I left Sakhalin shortly after we met. I didn’t see him again, but I always regret meeting him too late in my stint there.

    • Very interesting! That’s how it should be but seldom is. It seems the man was respected for the right reasons. It would be interesting to know his background – where he grew up, what his parents were, how he started his business.

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